My Year in Lists
Week Forty

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"["¦] this disc is nothing like you'd imagine. Not even almost. I've been over it again and again looking for some cause, some reason, anything, that would compel a band with this much unfiltered creativity and kinetic energy-- a band without even the slightest suggestion of tear-stained poetry or bedroom catharsis-- to fall victim to the worst possible Vagrant Records clichés. I can't find it. All I know is that when I press play, and this disc whirrs to life, it inexplicably sheds its crybaby façade and becomes... sort of infinite."-Ryan Schrieber of Pitchfork.com on You Forgot It in People

Sometimes personality can be a constraining aspect of music. A certain brand develops around a band over time, and it can be difficult to shake this brand. Artists who try to come out with markedly different work are often crucified by their own fan base for their efforts, and either lapse into obscurity or try a "back to basics" approach on their next album. People fear change as a rule, and they want what they want from a certain band. This is both completely understandable and utterly unfair. I know if I go to a grocery store and buy a package of roast beef that it will taste like roast beef, and if my roast beef sandwich tastes like ham, I'm liable to be pretty upset. Yet I would never argue that music is akin to deli meat, and I can understand why vast artistic changes may make a person or a band go in wildly different directions.

I can get up on a high horse about how unfair it is for us to criticize groups who change their sound and stop producing what we want pretty easily (after all, musicians aren't responsible to us. They owe us nothing and, unless they are in the business to get rich, like Oasis don't really expect anything back from us as a rule), but I can't honestly do it without being a total hypocrite. I have previously admitted that I find it hard to call myself a Beck fan when his style is so varied and (to my ear at least) inconsistent. And when Death Cab For Cutie released Narrow Stairs, I was just as angry as anybody else that Ben Gibbard had gone off and become happy, leaving fans of the band's more melancholy feel alone in the dark (where we did, after all, follow him). We hold our musicians to standards that out completely unfair and then get angry when they don't live up to them. We expect them to be what we want at all times, never recognizing that they are artists following their own artistic desires, and also that they have no idea that we, as individuals, even exist.

So I can understand why artists will do a lot to conceal, or at least obfuscate their identities when they want to try something different. This week we will look at three groups trying something different than what they had done before. Two of them use some form of alter ego to distance the work from their own output. The third has the advantage of becoming popular just as an evolution in their sound took hold, meaning that most of their fans didn't feel abandoned by the group's new sound; most of them thought of it as the group's only sound.

Last week we talked about avante garde composer Asmus Tietchens, a man who experimented heavily while retaining melody, and whose style was fairly consistent even while his work varied dramatically. Tietchens could go from a whimsical, upbeat piece to a dark and foreboding one in seconds, yet each retained the markers of his style. So it makes sense that when he was looking to go a little further off the beaten path than we were used to, he decided to leave his name out of the project entirely.

Like The Residents, Mechthild Von Leusch and Werkbund obscure their membership and refuse to admit that any particular person is involved, hoping that the art, rather than the artists, will be the focus of their work. Unlike The Residents, neither of these groups has done nearly as good a job at hiding their membership roster. While Asmus Tietchens repeatedly and vehemently denies any participation in these groups, it is widely theorized that both are collaborations between himself and Ulli Rehberg (with Felix Kubin also often mentioned as a potential member). Considering this has never been confirmed, I cannot possibly say for certain that this is accurate. But, for the moment, I'm going to go with the idea that Tietchens is at least somewhat involved in both projects.

Mechthild Von Leusch released Tab's first pick this week, Ou Wirnith (also known by its longer title, Ou Wirnith, Rungholter Tanze, Erstes Buch) in 1993. Unlike Tietchens other work (again, I am assuming his involvement based on my research), the album is focused much more on industrial sounds, creating the feel of psychological deterioration and nightmarish scenarios. "Legenden Des Windes" opens with a spoken word piece (in German, obviously) before morphing into an eerie soundscape that sounds like what I imagine a field full of mournful banshees might conjure. "Rungholter Tanz 12" continues with that sound, backgrounding it behind a repetitive percussive beat, before developing into a propulsive combination of drums and industrial sounds. It is hard to single out tracks off of the album to discuss, as the whole thing flows together like one long, surreal, and occasionally creepy exercise in the avante garde.

It differs greatly from Tietchens solo work, yet listening to it I have little doubt of his involvement. On his solo albums, as we discussed last week Tietchens tends to change his style dramatically, so if one track isn't working for you the next will likely be more enjoyable. He also tends to have a more traditional approach to the construction of his songs. Mechthild Von Leusch feels more like one long track, yet Tietchens' sense of melody and ability to wring beauty out of disparate sounds are both apparent throughout.

Werkbund very likely consists of the same line-up as Mechthild Von Leusch (though again, this cannot be confirmed), so much so that discogs.com lists Mechthild as a simple alias of Werkbund. The group released Haithabu, Tab's second pick this week, in 1992, and it does sound sonically similar enough to Ou Wirnith that I am willing to buy the idea that these two mystery groups are in fact one in the same. "Langschiffe," the opening track, is a more ambient piece than anything on Ou Wirnith, yet the sound is still similar, and the feel is nearly identical. The title track, "Haithabu" seems even more in Tietchens' wheelhouse than anything before it, with a sound that includes chants and a Tietchens-esque sense of atmosphere before becoming a dark, deeply synthesized, looping track.

It is clear to me why Tietchens would not want his name directly associated with these projects, even though I feel any fan of Tietchens would also like both Mechthild Von Leusch and Werkbund. The projects differ enough from his standard output that some people would likely be angry at them, and associating a prominent name (as strange as it sounds, Tietchens is a prominent name in German avante garde) with a project like this would have focused all of the coverage on Tietchens and the stylistic differences between this and his other work.

Broken Social Scene is another story entirely. The members of the group are widely known, though usually for other projects. The group refuses the term "supergroup," in spite of the fact that they are basically the very definition of said term, claiming that in the indie community everyone is associated with more than one act. The group may hate the term, but it is completely accurate, as members of KC Accidental, Valley of the Giants, Feist, Metric, Stars and several other Toronto area bands are involved in Broken Social Scene. The band can at times sound like any or all of the groups involved in it, and is almost always characterized by a large number of sounds, lush and complex orchestration, and unusual song structures (at least, unusual by indie rock standards).

The band released their second album, and Collin's pick this week, You Forgot It in People in 2002. As always, the core duo of Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning head up the album, which includes contributions from Andrew Whiteman, Charles Spearin, Justin Peroff, John Crossingham, Evan Cranley, James Shaw, Leslie Fiest, Emily Haines, Jessica Moss, Ohad Benchetrit, Bill Priddle, Brody West, and Susannah Brady. The album's sound is much more diverse and complex that the more ambient (and largely instrumental) debut, Feel Good Lost. Broken Social Scene set out to step away from their indie, art-house roots and create a new form of pop music. What they created was a shockingly successful merger between the intelligence of art-rock and the instinctual immediacy of pop music.

"KC Accidental," named after Drew and Spearin's previous band is a guitar driven, drum infused ditty that sounds at once propulsive and beaten down, accelerating in orchestration before becoming a pop lullaby. "Stars and Sons" is a more standard alt-rock pop song, with a consistent, catchy melody to support the mellow lyrics. The song manages to sound like Sonic Youth gone mainstream in the best possible way, with an art-rock mix to complement a straightforward pop song. "Almost Crimes (Radio Kills Remix)" is a catchy duet that pulls you in and never lets go, a song about a love/hate relationship that hit the beats so well you almost feel like you're living it.

"Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl," one of my favorite Broken Social Scene tracks, is a slow, repetitive examination of female teen angst, a story of one friend abandoning another for a chance at popularity told in a non-linear fashion that emphasizes specific moments of betrayal rather than aiming at capturing the whole relationship's deterioration. The song is a masterpiece of understatement, a tragedy writ small that sinks into your psyche and stays lodged there. "Cause=Time" feels like a toned down, polished Dinosaur Jr., a song about collective thinking and the individual need to feel vital that communicates those heady ideas in a catchy, subtle way.

You Forgot It in People was a bold, even brilliant, new direction for Broken Social Scene, and one of the defining indie rock albums of the last decade. No individual could hope to take credit for the beautiful cacophony of sound and feeling the group created, nor would trying to give credit to any of the members associated with other groups be even remotely accurate. Broken Social Scene is something different, and something better than any of these individuals or their other projects could ever accomplish. The band tries to avoid the term supergroup, but in every way they feel like a superior incarnation, a collective that creates sounds and feelings none of them could even approximate separately.

All of the groups we have talked about so far use different names to obscure their make-ups and to avoid being too heavily associated with the work of the individuals involved in them. Pulp, though, is a different story, a band that altered its sound, and left relative obscurity behind with the change. There was little fear of alienating a fan base Pulp never had, and even if there was, the group needn't have worried. The group reinvented themselves as one of the defining bands of the Britpop era with a sound so stellar no one could have complained.

They released the second album of their "Britpop era," and Ashley's pick this week, Different Class in 1995. Like many other Britpop bands, the class system in Britain is a recurring theme of the album. "Mis-Shapes" is a rousing Britpop anthem, catchy and powerful in equal measures. "Common People" is a song about people who aspire to be "common people," giving glamour to the idea of poverty. The song takes an acidic view of "slumming," mocking the girl the song focuses on for trying to live in a lower class way, despite the fact that even if she lives in a place where, "roaches climb the wall," she could call her father and put a stop to it all immediately.

"Disco 2000" is a cute song about a childhood romance, in which two kids are told they will grow up to get married and imagine what it would be like to meet up again when they are older. "Sorted for E's and Wizz" is a song about a rave and the drug use inherent to the experience (E's being Ecstasy and Wizz being speed) as well as the resultant come down the next morning. Pulp embodied the Britpop scene as much as any one band involved in the scene could, dealing with similar themes and exploring them while ensuring that their sound fit into the template of Britpop without losing its distinctiveness. Different Class is a brilliant Britpop album, catchy, fun, singable and meaningful all at once.

Artistic change can be difficult for both artists and their fans. Asmus Tietchens shielded himself and his devotees from that by creating side projects that he could deny involvement in. Broken Social Scene combined so many sounds and influences it would be impossible to reduce them to the work of a single person, allowing everyone involved the artistic freedom they needed to form an entirely new type of indie pop. Pulp kept their name, but found their sound meshing with the most popular movement in Britain at the time, helping to mask their natural evolution behind the idea of a broader movement sweeping them up. It is not fair of us to expect our artists to produce exactly what we want from them, but it may ultimately be an instinct that cannot be fought. Change can be a good ting, to be sure, but if this week's artists are any indication, sheltering fans from that change may be the best way to break into new musical territory without burning any sonic bridges.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

The Legendary Pink Dots show us Faces In the Fire and then take us to The Tower, Weezer wants to be a Pinkerton, and Four Tet brings us into the ring for a few Rounds.

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